With four of the five kiwi squad blessed with an abundance of All Blacks and an almost unfair amount of emerging talent—they look set to add another title to the cabinet.
The Crusaders and Blues are the only NZ teams to have tasted glory – between them they account for an astonishing ten Super Rugby titles. Australia and South Africa have three titles shared amongst them since 1996.
We could credit Graham Henry for his obsession to build depth between 2004 and 2007. But, despite grumblings that the state of the game in New Zealand is not sublime; their system is unequalled for maintaining player talent and this is painfully clear (to other national unions) when we see very strong squads—despite New Zealand losing approximately 20 front line All Blacks and senior Super 14 players in the last year and a half.
Current Super 14 and ANZC champions Canterbury will not present the usual overwhelming case for title favouritism—by virtue of the absence of two modern day greats, former coach Robbie Deans and arguably the world’s best player Dan Carter.
However, irrespective of this, no domestic union in the world can boast the production line that the Crusaders wield, and even with Carter gone, there are two class first five’s in Stephen Brett and Colin Slade—the latter of whom played for Canterbury in the majority of the ANZC.
With the talismanic Richie McCaw combining with Kieran Read and Thomas Waldrom in the back row—who had an outstanding domestic season with Wellington in 2008, Canterbury will be a mighty presence in the ruck, as well as All Black enforcer Brad Thorn and the reliable Ross Filipo combining in the second row.
New coach Todd Blackadder, a Canterbury legend, will come to the role after cutting his teeth with Edinburgh as a coach. However, he is no Robbie Deans—and lack of top class three quarters and front row may hurt the Crusaders. But, this is Canterbury, who is well accustomed to what is needed to accomplish Super 14 glory. But the transition will see them just miss out on the top four.
The Hurricanes will field the most threatening side of any team in the Super 14, littered with All Blacks, with a stable coach in Colin Cooper and the heaviest of expectations. Even without Jerry Collins, Chris Masoe (Europe) and Jimmy Gopperth (Blues) missing—they will field a most impressive starting fifteen, lacking in no position except that of first five, unless Piri Weepu is shifted out.
Five All Blacks in the pack led by the tireless Rodney So’oialo and Andrew Hore, the first choice All Black midfield in Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, and a deadly three quarter line with last year’s leading domestic try scorer Hosea Gear, along with Cory Jane, David Smith and Zac Guildford—and the team from the capital drip with class.
They will have learnt from their poor performance in the ANZC final last year and insipid semi-final capitulation in the 2008 Super 14—both times to Canterbury. The team most likely to defeat them is themselves, and if they conquer the “almost” mentality, they will hoist their maiden Super 14 title.
The enigmatic Blues are quietly confident, and are not being talked up by the media much—due to its three main feeder unions having poor years in last year’s ANZC. They have lost Nick Evans, Daniel Braid and Isa Nacewa, but if new coach Pat Lam can transform ability to results, they will threaten for the championship.
They boast a most impressive forward pack, with Tony Woodcock, John Afoa, Keven Mealamu, Anthony Boric, Ali Williams and Jerome Kaino all front line All Blacks last year—who will be joined by the brilliant back rower Josh Blackie from Otago.
Taniela Moa and Benson Stanley will continue their development as internationals in waiting; but it is feeding the ball to the backs that will be paramount for the Blues.
With a three quarter line boasting All Blacks Joe Rokocoko, Rudi Wulf, Anthony Tuitavake and Isaia Toeava—the recently underperforming Aucklander’s have the talent to make the Top Four, as long as the natural flair combines with a cold efficiency.
For Waikato to compete, much will depend on their pack. Long a traditional power in the New Zealand game, since winning the ANZC in 2006 they have failed to live up to promise. There is no shortage of class up front, with Hika Elliot, Liam Messam, Tanerau Latimer and Serge Lilo all products of the New Zealand academy systems.
But it could be in the back line where we see the aptitude come of age. No less than five All Blacks will line up—with Brendan Leonard finally returning from injury. Fringe All Blacks Stephen Donald and Richard Kahui will have points to prove, especially the former with Carter playing in Europe. The Chiefs will wield one of the finer three quarter lines, with first choice internationals Sitiveni Sivivatu and Mils Muliaina. But they will finish anywhere such is their inconsistency.
Highlanders coach Glen Moore and his men will as always be pragmatic and strong up front—but as always their lack of genuine X factor players anywhere will hurt their chances. However, despite this, as last year they will not be embarrassed but will bring up the rear of the table.
Last year: 1st and champions This year’s prediction: 5th FIRST GAME: vs. Chiefs @ Christchurch
Last year: 4th
This year’s prediction: Champions
FIRST GAME: vs. Waratahs @ Wellington
Last year: 6th
This year’s prediction: 3rd
FIRST GAME: vs. Force @ Perth
Last year: 7th
This year’s prediction: 9th
FIRST GAME: vs. Crusaders @ Christchurch
Last year: 11th
This year’s prediction: 11th
FIRST GAME: vs. Brumbies @ Dunedin